Monday, 29 April 2013

Redwood Stage: Beatriz Michelena in Salomy Jane (1914)

Beatriz Michelena
“Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty …” The New York Dramatic Mirror 1914

This film was lost from 1931 to 1996 when a copy was found in Australia. It is the last surviving film made by the California Motion Picture Corporation and also the only film featuring Latino star Beatriz Michelena.

Michelena was a woman of many talents, a successful opera singer, writer and business woman who formed the CMPC with her husband in order to produce her own films… This was one of a number of independent companies that flourished in the years before Hollywood assumed its familiar pattern. But the company failed and all evidence of its output was seemingly destroyed in a fire in the early 30’s.

Beatriz Michelena and House Peters
We are there for doubly blessed to have this excellent example of their work as well as Ms Michelena’s acting, all spruced up with a spritely new score from Mr Steven Horne – a master-craftsman of silent film accompaniment.

Salomy Jane was based on the popular novella by Bret Harte and as with other early features struggles to accommodate all of the details and characters from even the short-form novel. It was made over a period of six months and for a reputed $200,000 yet, despite critical acclaim, suffered from poor distribution and never broke even.

As her name suggests, Salomy Jane is no shrinking violet and as with Salomé, at one point urges one of her suitors to despatch a man who has assaulted her. She’s a tough gal but then this was the old west and a town where the only women seem to be either domestic slaves or sex workers.

Woman. horse... tree
The film opens with a magnificent shot of Salomy/ Beatriz emerging from a giant Redwood tree. The camera ranges up this massive tree to highlight the glorious North Californian forests and then down to our heroin astride a white stallion. The highly-informative commentary from Gary Scharnhorst, paints all this as Freudian symbolism and a deliberate effort to foreground Michelena’s sexuality… I’m not so sure myself: it’s a nice tree and it’s a nice horse though… but Beatrix does have a winning smile and doesn’t need the symbolism.

Acting with children as well as animals...
There’s also no doubt that Michelena’s the star, as, a part from every inter-title having her name on it, she is the only one to have the grand introduction with the other actors introduced in snippets of their later action.

And what a lot of them there are… this is a very busy film with four main narrative strands and a lot of action – sometimes confusingly quick.

Salomy and her father Madison Clay (Matt Snyder) arrive in Hangtown a care-worn mining community still just about riding the wave of the ’49 gold rush… they have come from Kentucky and intend to breed horses.

Ernest Joy, Beatriz Michelena, Clarence Arper and Matt Snyder
 Hangtown contains a lot of stock characters that were already emerging into cliché by this point. There’s gruff stage-hand Yuba Bill (Andrew Robson), professional gambler Marbury (Ernest Joy) and the town “flirts” Anna May (Lorraine Levy) and Mary Ann (Loretta Ephran)…

There’s also Red Pete (William Pike) a good fer nothin’ wastrel who abuses his wife (Clara Beyers as Clara Byers) and takes what money they have to gamble and get drunk whilst she and their three children live off scraps.

No shortage of suitors for Salomy
Colonel Starbottle (Clarence Arper) is on hand to provide some light relief with a flamboyant beard and grand gestures. He lets Salome and Clay a house and grounds for their livestock…

But any chance of a fresh start is curtailed as there’s already an enemy in town in the form of Larabee (Harold Entwistle). His family have a long-running feud with the Clays and have warned him of their arrival.

A sister's tragic message
British actor House Peters plays The Man (Jack Dart in the book) who is pursuing the rat who robbed his sister of her honour. He opens a locket with her picture and a note indicating that she has taken her own life in shame. She has sent a picture of the man who wronged her and it looks a lot like Baldwin (Harold B. Meade) with a villainous moustache.

Salomy tells Ruff to avenge her
Like most of the men in Hangtown, Baldwin is quick to hit on Salomy and, after she rebuffs his advances, follows her deep into the woods where he attempts to steals a kiss – code for a sexual assault which is largely missing from the film. Luckily The Man chases her attacker off and sets after him in hot pursuit.

Salomy runs back home in distress where she persuades another suitor, Rufe Waters (William Nigh who also directed parts of the film and later had a distinguished directorial career), to kill her attacker in exchange for her hand in marriage. Very Salomé …

Hold up!
He robs the stagecoach with his buddy Gallagher (Demetrios Mitsoras) setting in chain the events that will bring all the narrative strands crashing together. As they make their escape the stagecoach drives back to tell the sheriff.

Mill Valley with Mount Tamalpais in the background
There’s a great shot of the stagecoach racing down the winding roads of the Mill Valley with Mount Tamalpais in the background… Just a dozen miles north of San Francisco the scenery is stunning and one of the main reasons to watch this film.

Meanwhile (again), The Man has tracked down Baldwin to his miner’s shack hideaway and engages him in a fist fight… He easily bests the baddy and slays Baldwin with his own knife. Natural justice for both his sister as well as Salomy… But Ruff sees all and aims to take the credit and claim his prize from Salomy.

Mr and Mrs "Red Pete" and child
The stage robbers return home and there’s a smart sequence in which Red Pete’s children play around their parents… one of them pulling his sister’s sole dress off the washing line so they can go out  to play… before they go, the girl’s twin sister takes the stolen bracelet Pete has just offered his wife…

This bracelet will be handed to Salomy as she plays with the children…

A posse is organised as the Sherriff enlists the local men to capture the robbers and Baldwin’s killer and things really ramp up as the trigger happy chase the felons in order to deliver a summary hanging. The Man gets caught up in the melee as he’s confused and accused by the various parties as is Salomy in possession of the incriminating jewellery.

Salomy is accused
All of the strands are skilfully pulled together in one drawn-out and breathless conclusion – a riot of redwood, mistaken identity and desperate attempts to escape the vigilante’s “justice”...

It would be fatuous to say that, even by this juncture, the Western had established its familiar patterns as the templates had already been set in the works of Harte and many others in the 1800s. What cannot be denied is the enduring effectiveness of the formulae. 

You can just see House and Beatriz riding through the trees
A century on Salomy Jane is still beguiling fun helped in no small part by Stephen Horne’s trademark musical intuition. He weaves some lovely lines around the characters and the narrative,  enabling the modern viewer to really connect and better interpret the source material… and the amazing landscapes.

Beatriz Michelena makes for a compelling lead playing Salomy as a gum-chewing gal of action who is every bit as tough as the men around her. Her stage experience and operatic sensibilities suit the style of the play and she works well with House Peters. Like many of the characters in the film, she is an interesting shade of grey not clearly black and white – that’s the West alright:  “ a woman’s got to do what a man’s gotta do…”

Mount Tamalpais again in the distance...
Salomy Jane is part of the National Film Preservation Foundations box set, Treasures 5: The West. It can be ordered direct from the NFPF site or from Amazons. Excellent value, it also includes The Lady of the Dugout and Clara Bow in Mantrap (also featuring Mr Horne’s music).

2 comments:

  1. Great post, and a well-done summary of a convoluted plot! Cheers!


    For more about the California Motion Picture Corporation, see our collection of stills, here:
    http://bit.ly/13MYRMJ

    Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library
    http://www.marinlibrary.org/californiaroom

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  2. Hi Anne

    Thank you for the kind words and the link - some fantastic stills!

    Mill Valley looks to have changed a bit over the last century but the natural wonders remain!

    Best wishes

    Paul

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